All Musicians on Deck!

Setting Sail with the KC-Based Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise

The blues is a voyage both personal and universal.

So it’s fitting that Roger Naber, founder of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, has navigated such waters to move himself and other blues lovers.

Move where? Forward, despite pain. Forward, inviting gain. Always and forever, forward.

“This is my passion and this is something that I do,” Naber says. “And it’s not because (legendary blues vocalist) Bobby Bland once said, ‘Roger, never stop promoting the blues’ — but he did tell me that. It’s because I get as much enjoyment out of watching the audience have a great time as I do watching the musicians put on some of their best shows.”

Long before Naber launched the first of 37 (and counting) blues cruises that have involved thousands of gratified passengers and performing artists, the Kansas City native with a thing for three-chord truth that you can dance to was well on his way to being one of the country’s leading promoters of blues music.

From 1985 to 2004, Naber ran the Grand Emporium, a beloved hole-in-the-wall in midtown Kansas City that was a nightly showcase for live blues, rock, reggae, punk and other entertainingly earthy sounds delivered by a ceaselessly engaging array of national, regional and local bands.

He was also instrumental in advocating a greater cultural appreciation of the blues as the first president of the Kansas City Blues Society and a co-founder of the Kansas City Blues Festival, which in 1990 merged with the Kansas City Jazz Festival to become the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Festival.

Essentially, before perfecting floating blues parties, Naber was a go-to guru of the Kansas City blues scene. His devotion to the music on dry land set up his success on the high seas.

First Voyage

In 1991, just out of curiosity, Naber bought a ticket on a blues-themed cruise. He was well-acquainted with the world-class musicians aboard, including Kansas City’s own historic piano man Jay McShann. But the vibe he encountered on the water was a big surprise.

“I felt this total sense of opportunity for an experience that you couldn’t get on land,” Naber remembers. “There was a sense of freedom in the middle of the ocean.

“Here I was on this ship with Jay McShann and Albert Collins and Buddy Guy and Johnny Adams and Johnny Otis and all these people who were their fans. And we were away from it all in our own little community. I could see the island lights in the distance and there was nothing else around — and I could go hang with these guys. It wasn’t like one night, and they’re here and gone. They were going to be around later in the week. And I thought, ‘This could be really cool.’”

Building a Better Blues Cruise

Inspired by the nautical epiphany, Naber and his Grand Emporium co-owner George Myers founded the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Cruise in 1992. It sailed about once a year out of Florida, featuring true concert sound — as opposed to music cruises that offered “something like the house system at a Holiday Inn,” Naber says — and premier blues performers with whom he’d established strong connections.

“We were still learning our way around,” Naber says. “I was just dealing with the bands and George was dealing with the business side.” But their cruise business collapsed in 1998, when “George got himself in financial trouble and committed suicide.”

In 2002, with the help of investors, Naber returned to his notion of a blues-filled ocean with the redubbed Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. In the last 16 years, it has made 30 memory-laden excursions emanating from both coasts, with most trips selling out a year ahead of time and drawing up to 80 percent repeat customers.

“We’re considered the best cruise out there,” Naber says. “We run four or five stages simultaneously. We have organized pro jam sessions every day — the type that people can’t see at a land festival that ushers musicians on and off stage and shuttles them back to their hotel to make more room in the hospitality trailer for the next band coming in.

“Festivals don’t like to keep bands hanging around. But on a cruise ship, the bands are there seven days and so they get to hang with each other and play with their peers.”

And the musicians love it, says veteran Blues Cruise singer/bassist Danielle Nicole, formerly of the Kansas City blues band Trampled Under Foot.

“What’s really cool about the Blues Cruise is getting to see each other’s shows and jamming with some of the cats that you normally wouldn’t get to relate to on a personal level,” Nicole says. “I’ve gotten to know (singer/guitarist) Kenny Wayne Shepherd a lot through the Blues Cruise, and he ended up guesting on my latest album, “Cry No More.” So you form these relationships and you don’t know where they’re going to take you.

Such as “getting to sing ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ with (singer/guitarist) Walter ‘Wolfman’ Johnson backing me up,” she says. “And there was one day where I probably had five performances, but when (singer/guitarist) Elvin Bishop is like, ‘Hey, come by my set later and I’ll get you up to sing,’ I’m not going to be like, ‘Nah.’”

More Than Music

And then there are the extra ways that the players and fans are brought together, including pro-am “jamaramas,” where amateur musicians who bring instruments on board can gig with their heroes; educational blues panels and workshops; and two nights of autograph sessions that have proven to be major attractions in themselves.

“We set it up so people get to have a personal touch with everybody they’ve come to see,” Naber says. “We did build a market, from blues festivalgoers to loyal Blues Cruise fans, who consider it a family.”

Toward the end of every Blues Cruise there’s an awards party, where feel-good honors are bestowed on the cruisers who wore the best costumes, the musicians and passengers who jammed the most, the cruiser with the biggest bar tab (because they have the most friends), the pampered princess award (for the woman who spends the most at the spa) and the cruiser who came the farthest (Australia wins every time).

Yet sometimes the greatest distance traveled happens in the heart. Take James Thomason, a real estate entrepreneur from Dallas, whose first Blues Cruise in 2012 was to have been enjoyed with his wife.

“She booked it for us,” Thomason says. “But, in the meantime, we broke up and were going through a horrible divorce. I was just going to cancel. But my stepdaughter and my friends all said, ‘No, no, you need this. You love the blues and we think it will be healing for you.’ And, boy, was it ever.

“I was just really bummed out the first day. And then I’m standing and watching Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks play ‘Midnight in Harlem.’ And I felt like that scene from ‘The Blues Brothers’ where Jake Blues was at the back of the church and that blue light came down and hit him and he cartwheels all the way to the front of the church. A light came on for me and I said, ‘Yes, this is what the blues are for. It’s not to make you sad. It gets you over your sadness. It’s an elixir.’ And for the rest of the cruise I had fun and it got me through some hard times.”

For Thomason, continuing to be a Blues Cruiser is the gift — albeit at $2,500 a cruise — that keeps on healing. “Anytime I’m feeling down about something, I know I have the Blues Cruise to look forward to, because I’ll see Roger and all the other friends I’ve made who are like family. . . and now my ex comes over and feeds the dogs when I’m on the Blues Cruise.”

Virgins and Veterans

As with any family, there are new arrivals. On the Blues Cruise, they’re called “virgins,” and the learning curve can be steep. The savviest advice from veteran cruisers? Pace yourself.

On her first cruise, “everything was new and exciting and I couldn’t stop,” admits longtime blues cruiser Judith “Juke” Kerr, a retired NBC News production manager. “But I hit the wall and had to leave to go back to my room and crash. I had just gone four or five days non-stop and that was it, and I had to miss Bonnie Raitt’s show — it was a terrible thing.”

The energy she’s learned to conserve since then has allowed Kerr to participate more fully, if less frenetically, in her twice-a-year Blues Cruise regimen.

“We’ve had sunrise services during the week where we are actually paying tribute to some of our fellow cruisers or musicians who have passed since the last time that we were there,” she says. “Whether you’re getting up or staying up until sunrise, you actually want to be part of something like that. It’s very emotional, I can tell you.”

Another tip: “Don’t just think that whatever’s on the printed schedule is all there is, because it isn’t,” says cruiser Thomason. “Sometimes you’ve got to walk around and ask people, ‘Hey, anything else happening on the ship?’ Because there’s always something happening, but it’s not always official.

“After about 3 a.m., that’s when the real fun gets going, because that’s when all the professionals get to jam with each other. And you can look in their eyes and see that they’re not just doing it for the money anymore. They’re not even just doing it because they love the blues and it’s their profession. They’re doing it because I think it takes them back to a time when they were just starting out as a musician. And it sort of renews them and makes them feel young again.”

The blues as a fountain of youth? That might explain how promoter extraordinaire Naber keeps it coming strong on each and every Blues Cruise.

“It’s really incredible when Roger starts going off on a tangent about Bobby “Blue” Bland and some of the relationships he’s had over the years with these legends,” says Blues Cruise musician Nicole. “To see his eyes sparkle like he’s a kid, just talking about stuff like it was yesterday.”

“The blues is a playground,” Naber says. “But I’m hoping there’s a book I could slow down to write about how the blues started to dominate the Kansas City music culture, because it did overtake the jazz here, and how we’ve taken it internationally with the Blues Cruise family.”

For a schedule of events and cruises, visit www.bluescruise.com.

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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